Six Questions with Mirka Hokkanen
Mirka Hokkanen is an author-illustrator who likes quirky animal characters and stories that make kids laugh. Mirka is the author-illustrator for the graphic novel series Mossy and Tweed (Holiday House), the picture book series Kitty and Cat (Candlewick), and the nonfiction picture book series Little Seasons (OddDot).
Mirka was born in Finland, but now has lived all around the world as a military spouse. She is currently living in Maryland. When not writing or illustrating books, she loves to be outdoors, sew, or paint and print in her studio. Visit Mirka's website to learn more about her and her work.
1. What are some of the best and hardest parts of creating books for kids?
I’ve been creating kids books for about 7 years now. I think the best part is that I’m able to create my own schedule and work when it best suits me. The work can get boring at times, but each book is different, so there’s always an exciting new project looming in the future. It also makes my heart sing to see families enjoy what I’ve created.
The worst parts are that it can be lonely, and very tedious at times (drawing the same characters consistently over and over again and keeping your style the same for 40 pages). You have to have the internal motivation to finish projects when you are in those slumps.
2. Once you’ve created a first draft, what’s your next step? Critique group? Check in with your agent? Tuck it away to let it age?
Once I finish a first draft, I usually sit on it for a few days and then look at it again. I’m usually too excited after writing something for the first time to really see it objectively. I wait a bit, and then make some edits and then I send it to my critique group. Once I make a few rounds of edits based on suggestions and think it’s good, I send it to my agent. When we have it at a nice spot, then I’ll start working on a dummy and final art examples for submission purposes.
3. Do you ever get stuck creatively? If so, how do you get unstuck?
The above answer was the best case scenario for a story. In reality I have many stories that aren’t quite there yet, and I’ve been sitting on half written stories for years. I work on them intermittently, in between other projects. I find it helpful to take time off from a story I’m struggling with, to get new ideas and to look at it more objectively. I love reading tons of books for inspiration and to see how other authors have solved the kind of issues that I might be facing. I don’t stress over being stuck. I like for things to move naturally, if I can’t think of a solution, I’ll work on something else and let the first thing simmer in the back of my mind. Sometimes stories just aren’t good enough, or I can’t think of anything to solve the story problem, and I just leave them sit. It’s more important to keep coming with new ideas and keep working, that let yourself get stuck on one thing and get bogged down by it. Not all stories will make it into a book (actually only a small fraction of my half written stories do).
I believe in always showing up for work, even if its at home. Once I sit down and start fiddling about, I get into a groove and then working is easier. But if I wait for inspiration to strike, it’ll never come. So first comes work and inspiration follows.
4. Where did you get the idea for Kitty and Cat: Opposites Attract? What was your inspiration?
I got the idea for this book late one night after I had already laid down for bed (when I usually have all my good ideas). I had to get out of bed and write my idea down before I forgot it. The inspiration was my own life with cats, and in some ways funny cat videos you see online. The first idea was: funny things we cat owners have to endure, paired with the concept of teaching opposite word pairs to kids, and then it evolved from there.
5. What was the most challenging thing you faced while writing and illustrating this book?
I wanted this book to not only be funny, but to also have a story, and a heart, while teaching the concept of opposite word pairs to kids. I worked on several rounds of edits with my critique group, and then with my agent, and even more rounds after it was acquired with my editor and art director. The challenging thing was to make something different, that hadn't been done before, and hitting all the marks of humor, heart and concept. It was a lot of trial and error and then polishing to get the wordless story just right, but I had a lot of fun working on the story along the way. It’s incredibly helpful to have other people look at your work, because they notice things that I miss and help make a better end product.
6. Was this the book that landed you your agent? If so, what was that process like?
After I had written Kitty and Cat: Opposites Attract, I decided to make a whole Kitty and Cat concept book series. I wrote and illustrated dummies for them all, and the series landed me with my current agent, Laurel Symonds at KT Literary.
It was a bit of a round-about pairing. I was actively querying agents, and Laurel was one of my dream agents. I had seen her speak at several SCBWI events and she had critiqued a story of mine, and I knew she would be amazing to work with. For my query, I had originally sent her a different story, that she turned down, but she left the door open if I wanted to submit something else later. Around that time, I posted Kitty and Cat to a Twitter pitch party, and it got an editor like. Long story short, I got an offer from the editor for publication, and wanted to get an agent to handle the contract negotiations. I resubmitted to Laurel and let her know about the offer, and she ended up loving the series and offering representation.
In the end we declined the first publisher, and worked on the stories a bit more and then went out again on submission and landed with Candlewick. I couldn’t be happier about how everything turned out in the end after all the hard work!